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Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth (2005)

by Andrew Smith

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7922127,510 (3.81)22
In time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing comes this edition of journalist Andrew Smith's Moondust, now updated with a new Afterword, that tells the fascinating story of twelve astronauts who ventured to space, and his interviews with nine of the surviving men. The Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s have been called the last optimistic acts of the twentieth century. Twelve astronauts made this greatest of all journeys and were indelibly marked by it, for better or for worse. Journalist Andrew Smith tracks down the nine surviving members of this elite group to find their answers to the question "Where do you go after you've been to the Moon?" A thrilling blend of history, reportage, and memoir, Moondust rekindles the hopeful excitement of an incandescent hour in America's past when anything seemed possible as it captures the bittersweet heroism of those who risked everything to hurl themselves out of the known world--and who were never again quite able to accept its familiar bounds.… (more)
  1. 00
    The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (bluepiano)
    bluepiano: Wolfe tells of the early and sometimes would-be astronauts and Smith of the later ones who walked on the moon. Both books are wonderfully readable.
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4.25

Moondust bats back and forth between interviews with the Apollo astronauts, their families, other associates, and the author's own experiences as he reflects on the pop culture of the 60s and 70s. Smith also speculates on the enigma of the moon landing and why it's morphed into a sort of fairy tale in the public consciousness, with science fiction and even dramatisations of the Apollo missions holding more fascination for the public than the reality. His travels and reflections place the moon landings into a context that's interesting to consider. That maybe they happened for the wrong reasons, that it's a miracle they happened in the first place, that very few people care about it anymore, that it hasn't led to what we expected, and that conspiracy theorists have produced an alarming amount of scepticism in the public mind as to the authenticity of events.

Much of which pertains to the astronauts, their lives, their psychology, the context of their status, the varied responses to fame and lack thereof, etc. I found very interesting; much of which focuses on the author's own autobiographical asides and reflections was less so for me initially; but by the end, I was very much sold on the total package. Smith writes very well and makes everything a breeze to read, wherever the focus is on any given page, and it felt to me like a journey. I went through disappointment over the content of the book, and this seemed to parallel Smith's own disappointment and unmet expectations with his findings. It's kind of spectacular that he was able to get one-on-one interviews with so many of the figures involved, and it's fascinating to consider the impact that such a singular event has had on their lives. Again, I was disappointed initially with what seemed to be a failure to get blood from the Armstrong stone, but ultimately I think what Smith does deliver on that front is perfect in light of his goals and conclusion. Besides, far from the first - or the second - man on the moon, possibly the most affecting segment for me was the interview with Alan Bean. He's one of the few to have not really written much, instead opting to let his painting do the talking. It's the simpler reflections, the way the lunar experience frames earthly experience, and the existential considerations that really resonated with me here. ( )
  TheScribblingMan | Jul 29, 2023 |
Mostly biographies of the moonwalkers after they walked on the moon. The author was very good at setting the scene having grown up as a teenager during the first moon landing in USA, and references to Annie Leibovitz's photography, the Kennedy Space Center, Alan Bean's Art. Briefly; Ed Mitchell (new age)Buzz (rivalry to Armstrong), Armstrong (demands privacy), Alan Bean (artist), John Young (believes lunar exploitation can solve Earth's crisis).
I read somewhere before about the scandal of Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden found himself mired in scandal—he and his crew had sold souvenir autographed postal covers they had taken aboard their spacecraft, but I'm not sure where, so it was good to read about it again. The book also had a fair amount of political mentions of Kennedy, The Cold War, Vietnam, and Nixon. ( )
  AChild | Nov 27, 2021 |
At one stage in his paying writing career, the late science fiction author Bob Shaw found himself working for Vickers Armstrong in their PR office. He was often asked to write the stories of otherwise unremarkable pilots who had gotten themselves into one hair-raising scrape in their careers; so he evolved a technique that he called "Smithers thought back", so he could start and finish with the exciting bit sandwiching the bulk of the story which turned out to be not very exciting at all.

It's a shame that Andrew Smith couldn't think of a way to do that for this book, because it seems to me that it has the potential to disappoint a lot of people. Inspired by the realisation that the number of Moonwalkers was a declining one, Smith set out to find and interview all of the Apollo crews remaining who landed on the Moon. But the trouble is that most of these people had fairly unremarkable careers after the Moon, because how could you follow that?

Some went on to achieve "more" in a professional sense, though those stories will not appeal to the sensation-seeking public. Others changed direction, or had epiphanies, or made some questionable decisions - just like the rest of us. This book really isn't about the Apollo programme, but about its aftermath for those involved. Along the way, we do get some insights into things like NASA Astronaut Office internal politics, and some viewpoints from some people who were flies on that particular wall, such as the BBC aviation correspondent Reg Turnbull. Smith's net even pulls in some of the Command Module pilots who flew to the Moon, but didn't get to actually land (perhaps the best known of whom, Apollo 11's Michael Collins, passed only recently).

The book is framed by Andrew Smith's own experience, watching the Apollo 11 landings as a boy and then undertaking this project in his middle age, at about the age the Apollo astronauts were when they flew. Some have branded this as self indulgence; but for the vast majority of us who were not involved in any way with Apollo other than as onlookers, it helps us identify first with the author and then with the astronauts he meets and their families. I have no idea what it was really like to fly into space atop a skyscraper-sized rocket or to walk amongst the beautiful desolation of the Moon, but I can easily imagine striking up a conversation with a healthy-looking old boy one bumps into in a café and finding out that they have a story to tell that is unique and yet it only makes up a part of their life, possibly even the part they're least excited about thirty or forty years on.

So: not a book for a nuts-and-bolts account of the Apollo missions; but as a study of nine men whose lives were changed by one extraordinary week in their past, and how the world both forgets them so easily and yet builds a very specific picture of them and what they should be like, a very useful book. ( )
1 vote RobertDay | Aug 2, 2021 |
"Turning right into the traffic on Sunset, I find myself breathing the words to 'For What It's Worth' by Buffalo Springfield, the Sixties group which launched Neil Young and Stephen Stills." (pg. 97)

"Sometimes I feel as though there's a little grey cloud following along a few steps behind me, or a dog with a big, drippy yellow tongue. The world is confusing, or maybe just confused. On the evidence so far, I'm not sure that I like it all that much, though the coconut ice cream in the park is nice." (pg. 126)

You may think that the above quotes are rather strange ones to find in a book about the Moon landings, and you'd surely be right. You might also think that I'm being unfair, that I'm quoting out of context, but I assure you that you'd be wrong. The damning thing is that Andrew Smith's Moondust could be half the length and still be seen as indulgent. The book is posited as being 'in search of the remaining Apollo astronauts' rather than a history of the Apollo program, and while this is interesting (more on that later), it does mean that the author inserts himself into the story a hell of a lot. There are merits in the approach, and in a rare few passages you do see the method in the madness, but there is something intensely dislikeable about a writer who sees the Andrew Smith story as being more important and more interesting for the reader than the Neil Armstrong story. The musician Neil Young is cited five times in the book's index, one more than Apollo astronaut Wally Schirra. I like Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield too, but I'm here to read about the Moon landings.

This is a shame, because when Smith talks about space he is actually pretty good. The Apollo missions are fascinating on their own, of course, so I don't know how much of the book's appeal is due to Smith and how much to his subject matter, but the author does well enough with the material – on the occasions he actually breaks away from his LP collection to talk about it. Only twelve people have been to the Moon, and only nine remained at the time Smith was writing (it's four now). The Space Age is now seen as a "historical anomaly" (pg. 34) and the further we get from its reality, "the more avant-garde it's coming to seem" (pp264-5). Smith's journey – and, boy, he really lets you know it is his journey – is to try to capture what that unique experience of standing on another celestial body could actually be like.

Each of the nine surviving Moonwalkers has a different perspective on what it was like and we join Smith in being fascinated at "the way one experience can produce such a spectrum of consequence" (pg. 245). Some of the stories, anecdotes, testimonies and contemplations are incredibly thought-provoking, like all things space-related, and we do not mind delving into these even with an author who is determined that it is he and not the reader who will be piloting this craft. Smith gets a lot of mileage out of this new approach to a story that has been told over and over again, and the book can be recommended on this basis alone. There are some good insights in this book, which unfortunately proves to be a lot longer than its 350 pages. For a persevering reader, Moondust has specks of golddust, mired in a muddy river of pseud. ( )
1 vote MikeFutcher | Feb 6, 2019 |
An interesting premise but too much shifting between analysis of late 60's American Zeitgeist & the space program. Whilst I appreciate a need to keep things in some sort of context this befuddled things for me. Not bad but not what you think ( )
  aadyer | Apr 7, 2012 |
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For Lotte and Isaak, the stars in my sky
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In the morning of July 9. 1999, I set out to meet Charlie and Dotty Duke in the bar of a London hotel.
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In time for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing comes this edition of journalist Andrew Smith's Moondust, now updated with a new Afterword, that tells the fascinating story of twelve astronauts who ventured to space, and his interviews with nine of the surviving men. The Apollo lunar missions of the 1960s and 1970s have been called the last optimistic acts of the twentieth century. Twelve astronauts made this greatest of all journeys and were indelibly marked by it, for better or for worse. Journalist Andrew Smith tracks down the nine surviving members of this elite group to find their answers to the question "Where do you go after you've been to the Moon?" A thrilling blend of history, reportage, and memoir, Moondust rekindles the hopeful excitement of an incandescent hour in America's past when anything seemed possible as it captures the bittersweet heroism of those who risked everything to hurl themselves out of the known world--and who were never again quite able to accept its familiar bounds.

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